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As Black women it’s in our DNA to seek to excel. But success often comes with a cost and countless Black women and men in the workforce experience what’s referred to as an “emotional tax”

Tamara E. Holmes
Oct, 13, 2016

This story originally appeared in the November issue of ESSENCE Magazine.

In a memorable episode of Scandal, Papa Pope told his daughter, Olivia, that she had to be twice as good as her White counterparts to get half of what they have. Those words rang true for many Black professional women who were raised to believe that we have to work harder than others to get ahead. While lots of Black women have taken this advice to heart, an exclusive study shared with ESSENCE by global research organization Catalyst suggests that such thinking may not only have a negative impact on our health, but could also impede our overall career success.

The good news is, it’s in our DNA to seek to excel. The study found that 87 percent of Black women want to be influential leaders, 81 percent want to obtain a high-ranking position and 89 percent want to engage in challenging and intellectually stimulating work.
But success often comes with a cost, the study found. Countless Black women and men in the workforce experience what’s referred to as an “emotional tax,” a psychological burden that’s a result of feeling different from their colleagues because of either race or gender. And for many, that burden can have far-reaching consequences.

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The Weight of Emotional Tax
Many women find that the higher they climb up the corporate ladder, the fewer women and minorities they see.

“I’ve always been the only one in the room,” says Ingrid L. Morris, 44, a Chicago-based corporate controller for Xerox Corp. “For four years I was the only Black female sales executive in my division.”

Recognizing that there were cultural differences between her and her colleagues, Morris learned how to play golf since her coworkers often closed deals on the golf course. She also pushed herself by reading different periodicals and waking up early each morning to watch the news so she would be informed enough to participate in conversations at the office. 

“It was just a regimen that I had to create for myself to compete,” she says. “Always constantly trying to make sure you’re prepared, you’re overprepared, that you’re accurate to the point of zero-percent error and that you also try to do it in an authentic way.”

Many Black women worry that their differences will cause them to be treated unfairly. Fifty-four percent of the 649 Black women and men surveyed who said they felt different because of their gender and race believed they had to be “on guard” when at work, compared with only 34 percent of those who did not feel different from their colleagues.

Tysha Tolbert, a 34-year-old IT sales executive in Silver Spring, Maryland, says she feels as if she must watch her tone whenever she’s interacting with clients because she doesn’t want to be perceived as the stereotypical “angry Black woman,” whereas “males can be a little more aggressive without customers taking offense.”

Other ways that Black women may respond to the anxiety about possible unfair treatment include straightening their hair or toning down their wardrobe to fit in better, and eating lunch at their desks so they could avoid socializing with those of other cultural backgrounds.

For Black Americans with a legacy of slavery and discrimination, “unfair treatment has in the past affected our survival,” says Karinn Glover, a New York City–based psychiatrist and cofounder of the Thrive Mindfulness Project, an effort that aims to decrease stress and enhance well-being in the workplace. “So it makes all the sense in the world for us to be vigilant about how we’re being treated.”

The feeling of being different can also have a direct impact on health, researchers found. 

Forty-five percent of Black employees who felt different from their colleagues said they had sleep troubles, compared with only 25 percent of those who did not feel different.

“Being treated in an unjust way is stressful for the average person,” says Glover. “It triggers a cascade of biochemical reactions that are associated with stress and avoiding danger.”

Emotional tax also hurts productivity. Approximately 75 percent of those surveyed who did not feel different believed they were creative and innovative at work, while only 61 percent of those who felt di erent from their peers felt that way.

When Black employees feel different, they’re also less likely to take professional risks and speak up at work. Only 56 percent of those surveyed who felt different from their colleagues were vocal about important or difficult issues in the workplace, compared with 74 percent of those who did not feel different.

Likewise, 54 percent of those who did not feel different said they felt psychologically safe at work, compared with 34 percent of those who did feel different.

Black women often respond to perceived differences by working harder to impress their managers, which can also negatively impact one’s well-being. “Working longer hours means you’re probably getting less sleep, and chronic sleep deprivation is bad for your health,” says Glover.

But many women believe that working harder is simply a necessary price you pay to be successful. “I definitely have to work harder; that’s just what seems like the Black tax of working in corporate America,” Tolbert says.

The Keys To Eliminating Emotional Tax
It’s important to note that emotional tax is a matter of perception. Not all Black employees surveyed viewed themselves as being different from their colleagues. “What leads to us experiencing something as stressful most often is our thoughts about it,” says Nicole Cutts, a Washington, D.C.–based psychologist and founder of Vision Quest Retreats, an organization that coaches women in career and professional success. If we can find a way to change the stories that we tell ourselves about our value in the workforce, we can begin to remove some of the weight of emotional tax.

An inclusive workplace—one in which employees feel valued for their personal and unique characteristics—is essential to banishing emotional tax. Among employees who felt included in the workplace, 27 percent felt different based on gender and 39 percent felt different based on race. On the other hand, the study found that among employees who did not feel included, 49 percent felt different based on gender while 62 percent felt different based on race. Inclusion also makes employees feel psychologically safe. Among those surveyed who said they did not feel psychologically safe at work, only 21 percent said they felt included. In contrast, 86 percent of those surveyed who did feel psychologically safe felt included in the workplace.

While it’s important for employers to create an inclusive environment, there are steps we can take to minimize the differences we feel on the job, and in the process lessen the emotional tax that is hurting us.

Look For Commonalities. It’s natural for people to feel more comfortable with those they know and are sociable with, says Cutts. Rather than focusing on the fact that your race or gender is different from 95 percent of the other employees, search for and point out things that you have in common. “Give them a chance to get to know you so that you will be more familiar to them,” Cutts says.

This strategy worked for Morris when she realized she was the only one of her colleagues who didn’t watch the television show Seinfeld. “That’s what they were talking about at the time in the office. When they’re talking about certain things that you have no interest in, no matter how small, if you don’t share a common interest, then you’re an outsider,” she says. Through conversations with coworkers, she learned that many of them were into golfing, fine dining and travel, so those were three subjects over which she bonded with many of her colleagues.

Be Willing To Educate. Sometimes finding common ground will require you to give people insight into your culture and background. “If I think that my boss has never dealt with an African-American female before in a position of power, then it’s on me to do things like schedule regular meetings or give her or him opportunities to get to know me,” Cutts says. Likewise, get to know your colleagues’ culture as well, whether they are White, Latino, Muslim. “Be as culturally competent as you can,” she adds.

Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable. You may not feel at ease in certain social situations, Cutts says, but the important thing is how you manage it. Maybe you only attend one social event a month rather than going out with teammates each week. “If it’s making me withdraw or stay at my desk and not participate or not give my best or contribute, then that’s not helping my professional image,” Cutts says. Also remember that if someone is treating you differently because of your race or gender, “this is the shortcoming of that other person. It’s not a reflection on you.” 

Learn From Mentors. Black women should seek out other Black women in their organization or  field who have likely had similar struggles. Participating in a nity groups can also be helpful. For example, Morris is president of Xerox’s National Black Employees Association.

When Makini Aziza Young, a 36-year-old consulting manager in the Washington, D.C., area, was concerned that her natural hair might make associates uncomfortable, she sought the counsel of other Black women in her firm. “They were like, ‘You keep your locs, you wear it how you want to wear it, and you know your resume,’” Young says. That advice proved to be a gem. “Now when I get the comments about my locs, I’m happy to use the moment to educate my colleagues about African-American hair.”

Her mentors have also advised her to minimize differences with co-workers by sitting with a variety of groups at lunch and engaging in conversations with as many people as possible, two strategies that have worked for her.

One of the best ways to combat the stress of feeling different is to keep your eye on the bigger picture of your overall career goals. “If you know that you have a purpose and a mission, it makes it a lot easier,” Cutts says.

Protect Your Emotional Health At Work

Creating a more inclusive workplace will not happen overnight, so it’s up to us to take care of our health today. Psychiatrist Karinn Glover suggests these ways to boost your well-being on the job:

Acknowledge The Physical. Pay attention to the feelings and physical sensations you have when you think you’re receiving unfair treatment or being treated differently, says Glover. Whether you’re experiencing a racing heart, headaches or insomnia, it’s important to note how work is a ecting your body.

Step Away From Your Desk. Research shows that taking a walk and getting some exposure to nature can be very helpful for lowering stress, Glover says. If it’s possible to take breaks from your job environment to go for a brisk jaunt, do it.

Employ Spiritual Methods. For some people, being in touch with their spirituality and believing in a higher power helps them overcome work-related stress, says Glover. Stealing away for a few minutes of meditation or prayer can provide relief.